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Crowds Sparse at Christmas Rites in Holy Land : Wet Weather, Violence Dampen Spirits; Thousands Attend Services in China

December 26, 1987|From Times Wire Services

From Bethlehem's heavily guarded Manger Square to the recently reopened cathedrals of Beijing, millions of Christians around the world Friday marked the birth of Christ nearly 2,000 years ago.

Thousands of U.S. servicemen keeping a vigil in the Persian Gulf spent a homesick holiday away from loved ones.

In the strife-torn Holy Land, a cold rain and unusually tight military security in the aftermath of widespread Palestinian rioting dampened Christmas celebrations.

Bethlehem Checkpoints

Hundreds of Christian pilgrims and other visitors, Americans among them, braved the gray weather and withstood searches at military checkpoints for the chance to spend Christmas Eve in Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where it is held that Jesus was born nearly 2,000 years ago.

Israeli army officials said there were no reports of violence following two weeks of rioting by Palestinians. The Israeli army had clamped heavy security on Christmas Eve festivities, deploying hundreds of soldiers, but most troops had been pulled out by Christmas morning.

Only about 600 rain-drenched visitors huddled under umbrellas and store awnings, listening to local and foreign choirs sing Christmas songs under an arcade. In contrast, Manger Square was jammed with people last Christmas Eve.

"I'm underwhelmed," said Charles Potee, 23, of Petersham, Mass. "You grow up seeing pictures of Bethlehem with the large crowds celebrating Christmas. This year is nothing. It's a bit disappointing."

A glum Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij, who for the first time in 20 years canceled his annual Christmas Eve reception for Israeli officials and foreign diplomats to protest Israel's handling of the rioting, said many Christians stayed home.

"The people are not in a spirit to celebrate," he said, staring out the window of his office into the rain-swept square. "It is very gloomy, very sad."

Merchants and hotel owners said it was their most unprofitable Christmas in years.

In Beirut, kidnapers holding at least 20 foreigners in Lebanon kept silent despite a chorus of Christmas pleas for the release of the captives.

The appeals went out from the wives of eight American and four French hostages, British Ambassador John Gray and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert A. K. Runcie, whose special envoy Terry Waite has been missing and presumed held since last January.

Aboard the Navy guided missile cruiser Richmond K. Turner in the Persian Gulf, older sailors tried to keep the younger men occupied to keep their minds off Christmas. Capt. John D. Luke offered cash prizes in acey-deucy, chess and cribbage tournaments, and the ship held a costume party with prizes.

Misses Family, Girlfriend

But Robert Ritter, 19, of Port Jefferson, N.Y., said that all of the activities didn't stop him from missing his family and girlfriend.

"It doesn't feel like Christmas," Ritter told a small group of pool reporters visiting the ship. "We try to wish away time out here. It's kind of sad. . . . But in turn I'm kind of proud to be here. I'm doing this for my country."

Tens of thousands of Chinese believers jammed churches to celebrate Christ's birth and the slow revival of religion in officially atheist China, offering prayers and joyful carols once banned by the Communist nation.

Thick crowds packed Beijing's six largest Protestant churches for evening services and three major Roman Catholic cathedrals for midnight Masses, among the first celebrated as the world turned toward Christmas Day.

From grizzled elders in Mao suits to children in padded winter clothing, worshipers filled to bursting drab halls ringed with bright lights and festive red and green decorations, listening to sermons and stirring Chinese renditions of familiar hymns like "Joy to the World" and "Silent Night."

The official New China News Agency said that more than 40,000 worshipers turned out at two dozen churches for Christmas Eve services.

Christmas Day was just another workday in the Soviet Union, where the officially atheist state has transferred most holiday traditions to the New Year's celebration. New Year's trees went on sale at street bazaars just a few days ago, and Muscovites spent Friday lining up at crowded stores and poorly stocked liquor shops to prepare for their big holiday next week.

The Estonian capital of Tallinn--the only Soviet city where the religious holiday is publicly recognized--was decorated with red-trimmed evergreen wreaths and a 40-foot Christmas tree in the central square.

In the cobblestoned streets of Warsaw's Old Town, Polish Christmas Day strollers perused the work of sidewalk artists and browsed in shop windows while trying to forget their economic hardships.

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